On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner.   God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also had cancer growing inside me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

Journey with cancer DV 20 Mar 2012

Dear family and friends,

Today is day 14 of my 3rd chemo cycle. The cycle starts with a day in hospital attached to a drip with nasty chemicals being pumped into the body. Then a roller coaster for the next 3 weeks, before you do it all over again. In theory, and based on previous cycles, I should be feeling pretty good and getting back into a semblance of normal life. But here is the problem – patterns, statistics, predictions, and even past experience, do not determine the future.

I ‘should’ be out and about, busy with work, and getting back into some gentle exercise. Instead, I’m lying in bed (with a laptop) trying to get rid of a chest infection and praying it doesn’t develop into anything worse. In fact, the past couple of days have made me rather fearful – fearful that I would end up in hospital again with pneumonia, fearful that I might compromise the chemo, fearful that something worse might happen.

Fiona reminded me last night that these things can often be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes even the other way round for a while. I would do well to keep putting into practice the word of God that I believe:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We are being reminded again and again that only God knows what’s around the bend and he calls us to trust him. There is a Latin phrase, deo volente, or DV, which means ‘God willing’. In days gone by it was common for Christian people to use these words as they spoke of their plans. You don’t hear it much these days, but I’ve begun using it more and more as I appreciate that it is God who is working out his good plans and purposes. In fact, this whole experience of getting cancer has highlighted how much I am not in control of my life and circumstances.

Back in December everything pointed to us moving to Darwin to begin the second major chapter of our lives. We had people on board with us, support structures and finances in place, a house to move into, kids enrolled in schools, tenants for our house in Canberra, a successor in my role at church, belongings in transit, and excited about the future. And then… a visit to the hospital changed everything. These verses from the Bible came to mind very powerfully:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4:13-15)

My life has been given to me by God. He calls me to make plans and to consider the circumstances and to do things wisely. But he also calls me to act with humility, to know that I belong to him, and that I can rely on him to do what is in my very best interests. Even when I would prefer things not to be happening! We’ve been learning this more and more.

But does this mean that all our preparations last year were going against God’s will, that somehow we were being disobedient and straying off the path? No, I don’t believe so. Our desire was to contribute to growing followers of Jesus in the Northern Territory. This desire was placed in our hearts by God and as we read the Bible we were reminded that this is pleasing to God. We sought wise council from many, and took years to come to our decision as a family. There was and is a big need, and we were drawn to respond. That need continues to exist and we pray that our passions to move north will be filled by others, or yet that I will be healed and one day serve God in that place, DV.

So is it possible to see the hand of God in what has happened? Absolutely. God has been at work in our hearts and minds, moving us to depend upon him more deeply than ever before. He has encouraged us, and literally thousands of others to pray. He has raised questions in the minds of friends that have nudged them to consider what we believe about God. He has deepened our empathy and love for people suffering under similar and worse circumstances. He has used our words to encourage others far and wide in their own struggles. He has caused us to appreciate our family and friends and church all the more. He has reminded us to number our days.

We can see God’s kindness in many of the details. My cancer was discovered because a doctor friend had the awareness to rush me to hospital when I complained of numbness and breathlessness. It was a time when all our family were at home. I had finished my final series of preaching at church. The church had already gone through a careful process of choosing my successor. It didn’t happen while we were on the road to Darwin. We still had our home in Canberra to move back into. Our friends have taken extraordinary care of us. Our church has continued to provide for us, and have welcomed my continued ministry among them. We’re receiving top shelf medical attention. I’m even allowed a tv in the bedroom! And there is so much more!

Let me tell you about the weekend just gone. It was a special time for our family (only we missed Matt). Fiona and Grace both entered large teams in the Cancer Council’s Relay for Life. They set up camp at the AIS athletics track and walked for 24 hours to raise money and awareness for cancer research and support. I wasn’t that keen to go – who wants to be surrounded by people with cancer? But the relay had a carnival vibe about it, with music, dancing, stalls, fancy dress, and lots of people having fun in the sunshine (& rain). Some ran lap after lap, others walked as best they could. I did a few laps at different times of the day, and must have been the slowest walker on the track each time.

FamilyThe first lap was exclusively for people who had cancer (either now or previously) and for carers. I wore a sash saying ‘survivor’ and members of my family wore sashes saying ‘carer’. It seemed strange to wear the sash, as though I should’ve had to go into remission to ‘deserve’ it. But, I have cancer, I am alive – so I guess I’m a survivor! As we walked the lap it was very moving to be clapped by hundreds of people lining the track, including many friends in Grace and Fiona’s teams. I shed a few tears that I kept well hidden behind my sunglasses! I was glad that I’d gone along.

We joined in another event on Saturday – a commissioning for friends of ours, Klaus and Grace & MorphJudith and family, who are heading overseas. As we were making our plans to plant a church in Darwin, they were planning further afield in Germany. It was a thrill to share with them as they count down the days to leaving. Klaus is German, and it is his great passion for his kin to know the good news of eternal life. As one friend reminded me on later, we had two celebrations over the weekend – one of life here and now, and the other of life for all eternity. Our prayer is that people will value their lives here and now, but not so much as to ignore God’s wonderful invitation of life forever with him. Some people seem to think that Christian faith is ‘life-denying’. Our experience is the exact opposite. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its fulness – now and forever.

Thank you again for your encouragement and support. The chemo roller coaster is a tough one, but made much easier in the knowledge that people are praying and helping us in so many ways. There is one cycle to go and we don’t know the plan after that. It could be more of the same, or part thereof. It could be something radically different. Our desire is for the treatment to completely destroy this cancer, and for us to be able to make new plans for a life beyond cancer, deo volente.

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

Naked God

naked_godIt seems winter has come early this year! I spent most of yesterday in front of our open fire reading Martin Ayers’ book Naked God. I’d had a few people recommend it, and I’ve been on the lookout for good books to give friends who are interested in finding out more about what genuine Christianity is all about. I found this a very readable and helpful book, and enjoyed reading it in a couple of sittings. If you are keen to begin exploring Christianity, without getting lost or distracted by all the junk that often gets added, then this book is a good starting point.

A quote from the book explains the title and the aim of the book:

In his famous book and TV series, The Naked Chef, it wasn’t Jamie Oliver who was naked, it was the food. Jamie Oliver succeeded in stripping down the food to its bare but glorious essentials.

And that’s what we need to do with God. We need to look at the evidence and find out what it uncovers. We need to strip away any false ideas we’ve developed from our culture or background, and reveal the truth. This is the truth about God, exposed. This is Naked God.

Martin Ayers begins by arguing a case for why the God question really matters at all. He does this by first considering the alternative – a world where there is no God – and what this means for our day to day lives. He probes the implications for meaning, purpose, freedom, morality, life and death. In the first part of the book he explores where atheism leads, drawing upon some of the claims of Richard Dawkins and others. His aim here is not to prove whether atheism is true or not, but simply to highlight the real implications of holding to this view of the world and the difficulties associated with seeking to live with a consistently ‘naturalistic’ way of life.

The second part of Naked God focuses heavily on the historical person of Jesus. He defends this approach by highlighting the extraordinary life, teaching, and impact of Jesus. This focuses ultimately on Jesus’ unique claims to be, quite literally, God among us. His untimely death at a young age by crucifixion, and the claims by his followers that he had been raised from death, are shown to be the linchpin in understanding Jesus and his relevance for us. In doing this, he tackles problems people may have with the reliability of the New Testament, the transmission of manuscripts, and the claims to uniqueness over against other world religions. While this is a relatively brief book, the arguments are well made and references to more substantial works are offered to the serious researcher. Ayers also addresses the ‘gut reactions’ many have against Christianity, such as its perceived social regressiveness, or the taking away of personal freedom, or the appalling track record of many who claim to be followers of Jesus.

The final section of the book speaks to the reader in a more personal way. Ayers explores the barriers we have to really knowing God. Importantly, he demonstrates that religious self-righteousness is just as big a blockage to relating to God as the choice by many to ignore God and shut him out of their lives. However, the book takes us beyond the problems and difficulties that stand in the way of knowing God, and invites us to take hold of what God is offering. And this is a genuine personal relationship with the One who made us. This relationship is shown to be a step into reality, not an escape into wishful thinking or myths and legends. It makes a big difference to life now, and beyond the shadows of death into eternity.

Macarisms

What are macarisms? And why have I called this blog by that name?

The silly answer is that people call me Macca and these are going to be things that I want  to communicate! But the deeper answer lies in the meaning of the word. It is simply an English version of an ancient Greek word meaning ‘blessing’ or ‘to be blessed’. There are various forms of this word in the New Testament, the most famous being Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5): Blessed are the the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the merciful… and so on. The specific word ‘macarism’ is found in Romans 4:6-8:

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness (macarism) of the one whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.

My desire for this blog is that people will be blessed as they read and think about life. My hope is to help people to reflect on the good life, to stop and consider what’s really worth having.